Universal credit is likely to be the main cause of the explosion in food bank use, the government has admitted, after years of denying the link.

Delays that meant people “had difficulty accessing their money early enough” could be to blame for claimants seeking emergency food aid, Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, told MPs.

The admission comes after successive ministers refused to acknowledge the link between the controversial new benefit and the people flocking to food banks.

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In November 2017, The Independent revealed that the Department for Work and Pensions was refusing to “collect or publish statistics” to corroborate, or disprove, the mounting evidence.

But, answering questions in the Commons, Ms Rudd said: “We are committed to a strong safety net where people need it.

“It is absolutely clear that there were challenges with the initial rollout of universal credit – and the main issue that led to an increase in food bank use could have been the fact that people had difficulty accessing their money early enough.”

Ms Rudd insisted she had now “made changes” that made it easier for claimants to receive advances on payments.

The comments were welcomed by Frank Field, the Labour chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee – but he said they must be followed by concrete action.

“At last, we have a secretary of state who is willing to have a much more open debate on the link that exists between universal credit and the need for food banks,” Mr Field said.

“Most importantly for claimants, this debate needs to result in action which eliminates the lengthy wait for benefits to be paid.”

Charities and MPs of all parties have long warned that long delays in delivering the benefit payments have left desperate people with no choice but to go to food banks.

The Trussell Trust, the biggest provider, reported that food bank use was up by an average of 30 per cent in areas where universal credit had been introduced.

In areas that had not been reached by the new benefit, demand had also risen significantly – but by 12 per cent, less than half as much.

Last year’s budget included an extra £1bn for universal credit to, ministers said, cut the wait for a first payment from five to three weeks.

The chancellor also announced an injection of £1.7bn into “work allowances”, the amount someone can earn before their benefits start to be clawed back from their higher income, delivering an income boost of up to £630.

Since taking up the job in November, Ms Rudd has promised a more “compassionate” approach to universal credit and has slowed down the scheme’s rollout.

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